Cindy Hyde-Smith, or Mississippi God Damn!
Why the history of white supremacy matters for the last Senate election of 2018
On Tuesday November 27 — tomorrow — voters in Mississippi will go to the polls to choose their next U.S. Senator in a runoff election pitting incumbent Cindy Hyde-Smith, a far-right Republican and Trump supporter, against Mike Espy, a moderate Democrat who served as Secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton administration. Unsurprisingly, race and racism loom large in the contest.
For Espy is an African-American running in one of the reddest states of the deep South. Mississippi is the only state that still features the Confederate stars and bars on its state flag. It is also one of the states with the most restrictive and voter-suppressive state and local rules in the country (and since the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County vs. Holder decision things have become harder: 100 polling places have been closed, and over 90 others moved without clear notification, and these changes are no longer subject to any federal oversight by the Justice Department). If he wins, Espy would become the state’s first black senator since Reconstruction — that all-too-brief period of Black emancipation after the Civil War (he would also be the first Democrat elected to the Senate in Mississippi since 1982).
And Hyde-Smith is a white woman whose recent publicized (and indeed recorded) joke about “public hanging,” i.e., lynching, followed by another about the suppression of “liberal” voters, has brought to the fore the deeply racist past of both the state and the candidate. For it turns out that, as the Jackson Free Press has reported, the teenage Hyde-Smith attended Lawrence Academy, an all-white “segregation academy” set up in 1970 in response to the 1969 order of Governor John Bell Williams to immediately desegregate Mississippi schools (Mississippi had successfully resisted the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision for over a decade). It also turns out that years later Hyde-Smith enrolled her daughter in Brookhaven Academy, another “segregation academy.” And it turns out that as recently as 2007, while serving as a State Senator — she was a Democrat until 2010; the racist history of the Democratic Party in the South is well known — Hyde-Smith co-sponsored a resolution honoring Effie Lucille Nicholas Pharr as “the last known living ‘Real Daughter’ of the Confederacy living in Mississippi,” referring to to the Civil War as “The War Between the States,” and celebrating that Pharr’s father “fought to defend his homeland and contributed to the rebuilding of the country.” (The resolution concludes that with “great pride,” Mississippi lawmakers “join the Sons of Confederate Veterans” to honor Pharr).
That such a person would be a Trumpist is no surprise. And that Trump — who has already held typical MAGA rallies in her support, and who has denounced her critics and defended her recent “jokes” — would return to Mississippi today to support her, is also no surprise. For Trump’s entire political fate rests on his far-right base, and racism is a core element of his appeal, as it was in Brian Kemp’s victory over Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Ron Desantis’s victory over Andrew Gillum in Florida.
Hyde-Smith is no aberration. She is very much a “daughter of the South” as this has long been extolled by those for whom “Resistance” has long meant not resistance to authoritarianism but resistance to racial equality. She is hardly the only important white politician in Mississippi to have attended a “segregation academy” (and indeed Governor Phil Bryant, who appointed Hyde-Smith to fill the vacancy created by Thad Cochran’s retirement, attended Council McCluer School, another Council-created “segregation academy”). Such schools were “laboratories of democracy” of a sort in Mississippi — so long as the “demos” was understood to be white:
As the Jackson Free Press notes:
A major force behind the segregation academies was the white-supremacist organization officially called the Citizens Council and routinely referred to as the “White Citizens Council.” Brookhaven was the home of Judge Tom Brady, a white supremacist who authored “ Black Monday,” the organization’s 92-page semi-official handbook soon after the Brown v. Board decision. In it, he made the case that those with “negroid” blood were inherently inferior to white people. The booklet functioned as a guide for the founding of the Citizens Council in July 1954 by Robert “Tut” Patterson, a former Mississippi State University football star. In the February 1972 issue of the Council’s official publication, The Citizen, the racist organization described its work to enroll white children in private schools. “It is in Mississippi that thousands of white parents have enrolled their children in the Council School Foundation’s private school system rather than accept the degradation of forced race-mixing, and mass bussing of pupils as ordered for public schools by the federal courts,” the article reads.
The Citizens’ Councils drew on an idiom of populist resistance to the federal government with roots in Confederate thinking. Their origins can be traced to the 1953 Mississippi “Indianola Plan,” which called for the formation of white citizens’ organizations to resist desegregation, which it linked to “mongrelization” and “communism.” The 1954 Brown decision gave the impetus to extend this organizational vision. In Summer of 1955, Senator James O. Eastland of Mississippi called for the formation of a broad-based “people’s organization” that was not “controlled” by “fawning politicians who cater to organized racial groups” such as the NAACP. In April of 1956 the Citizens’ Councils of America (CCA) was formed as an umbrella organization, pledged to defend the “separation of the races in our schools and all our institutions involving personal and social relations.”
While especially powerful in Mississippi, the CCA became the core of a powerful movement of white resistance to desegregation that represented a more “respectable” alternative to the KKK. Composed of groups with names like the Georgia State’s Rights Council, the North Carolina Patriots, and the Virginia Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties, the movement cast itself as a civic republican effort of “patriots” to resist what was considered the encroaching “totalitarian” power of the federal government. As Eastland, perhaps the group’s most nationally visible patron, said of the Brown decision: “the Court has responded to a radical, pro-Communist political movement. . . dictated by political pressure groups bent on the destruction of the American system of government and the mongrelization of the white race” (my account here draws heavily from Neil R. McMillen’s excellent 1971 The Citizens’ Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction, 1954-1964).
In the 1970’s the CCA languished, though its journal, The Citizen, continued to appear, featuring anti-liberal pieces by many white Southern leaders, most notably Jesse Helms, who were helping to remake the Republican Party, and the schools that it had set up in the 1960’s continued to flourish. In 1985 the CCA was rebranded as the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC). Labeled a “crudely white supremacist” hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, it has played an important role on the fringes of far-right politics ever since. But ever since the days of Helms, this group — whether by the acronym CCA or CCC — has played a significant role in the Republican Party, as Alan Crawford noted years ago, in his 1981 book Thunder on the Right: The “New Right” and the Politics of Resentment.
In 2010 the group was briefly in the public eye when it was revealed that in 1998 Senator Trent Lott, then the Senate Majority Leader, had delivered a major address at its national convention lauding the legacy of segregationist and “Dixiecrat” Strom Thurmond (Georgia Congressman Bob Barr, then an influential member of the House best known for his Savonarola-like crusade for Bill Clinton’s impeachment, delivered the keynote at the same event). In 2015 it turned out that Dylan Roof, the troubled young racist fanatic who massacred nine Black parishioners in a Charleston, South Carolina church, was inspired by the group (David Graham published a fine overview in The Atlantic entitled “The White Supremacist Group That Inspired a Racist Manifesto”). It was disclosed soon thereafter that three Republican presidential candidates — Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky — had received donations from the council’s president, Earl Holt III. The three candidates, all of whom later lost out to Donald Trump in the Republican primary, were forced to renounce the campaign contributions.In response, a New York Times piece documented how “Council of Conservative Citizens Promotes White Supremacy, and G.O.P. ties.”
The CCC’s current spokesman, white supremacist Jared Taylor, editor of the racist American Renaissance, is a strong supporter of Trump. In a May 2017 CNN interview, Taylor said that he supported Trump’s election as president “because the effects of his policy would be to reduce the dispossession of whites, that is, to slow the process whereby whites become the minority in the United-States.”
“White nationalism” is at the heart of the CCC. Here is the lead of a piece from the June 2018 issue of its journal, Citizen Informer, entitled “Same Old Trick”:
There is absolutely nothing new about nigros cheating and engaging in unethical behavior to advance their selfish interests: It is a fact of life that will require a million years of evolution to resolve. However, it is unusual when their misdeeds have severe and profound implications for public safety. It appears that during the Obama Regime, nigros were given a tremendous advantage when taking the Air-Traffic Controller’s Exam. . . Not surprisingly. the Obama Administration encouraged such cheating and questionable testing practices at the FAA in order to promote minority hiring and training of air traffic controllers. Apparently, too many nigros failed the traditional exam because they were too stupid to effectively compute.”
If you go to the CCC’s website, you will encounter a Statement of Principles drafted in 2005 by Samuel T. Francis, the self-described father of “paleoconservatism,” who declared that Brown v. Board of Education was “the most dangerous and destructive Supreme Court decision in American history”and that “Breaking down the sexual barriers between the races is a major weapon of cultural destruction because it means the dissolution of the cultural boundaries that define breeding and the family, and ultimately, the transmission and survival of the culture itself.” (Paul Gottfried, himself a luminary on the far right, who has been regarded as an inspiration for neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, has recently identified Francis as “the most brilliant social theorist produced by the American right,” suggesting that he anticipated Trumpism years before its emergence).
Among other things the Statement, which ought to be read in full, declares that:
We believe that the United States of America is a Christian country, that its people are a Christian people, and that its government and public leaders at all levels must reflect Christian beliefs and values. . .
We believe the United States is a sovereign and independent nation. . . We therefore oppose the so-called “New World Order” and its attempts to abolish national sovereignty and independence and to construct a one-world state in which America would vanish and Americans would be enslaved. . . .
We support the cultural and national heritage of the United States and the race and civilization of which it is a part, as well as the expression and celebration of the legitimate subcultures and ethnic and regional identities of our people. We oppose all efforts to discredit, “debunk,” denigrate, ridicule, subvert, or express disrespect for that heritage. We believe public monuments and symbols should reflect the real heritage of our people, and not a politically convenient, inaccurate, insulting, or fictitious heritage. . . .
The statement also announces support for an “America First Foreign Policy” and an “America First Trade Policy.” Of all the ways that it prefigures the rhetoric of Trumpism, most striking is this passage, which I quote in full:
We believe the United States is a European country and that Americans are part of the European people…We therefore oppose the massive immigration of non-European and non-Western peoples into the United States that threatens to transform our nation into a non-European majority in our lifetime. We believe that illegal immigration must be stopped, if necessary by military force and placing troops on our national borders; that illegal aliens must be returned to their own countries; and that legal immigration must be severely restricted or halted through appropriate changes in our laws and policies. We also oppose all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called ‘affirmative action’ and similar measures, to destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races.
There is a very short distance indeed, in time and space, between these sentiments, and the rhetoric of Trumpism.
It is thus no surprise that the current Republican candidate for the Senate in Mississippi, a proud product of a White Citizens’ Council upbringing, would be touting herself as “100% for Trump.” She comes by this commitment honestly (though, it must be said, the racism of Trumpism has many sources, not all of them Southern, with Trump himself being the product of a distinctive form of New York City racism that flourished in the “outer boroughs” and eventually helped to promote the ascendancy of Trump’s ideological compatriot, Rudy Giuliani).
At the same time, Mike Espy’s campaign has clearly come to symbolize the resistance to Trump. It has thus attracted widespread support from Democrats in Mississippi and the national Democratic Party. As the New York Times notes: “National party groups and super PACs have swarmed into the race, and two prominent African-American Democrats who are likely to run for president, Senators Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, have volunteered to help Mr. Espy.” Reverend William Barber III and his Poor People’s Campaign has also played an important role in mobilizing voters behind an inclusive agenda of social justice. As a recent piece in Mississippi Today notes: “More than half a million people in Mississippi — the state with the highest African American population in the country — live in poverty. More than 350,000 do not have health insurance. Mississippi’s leaders chose not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act to provide insurance to 130,000 poor residents. The state’s minimum wage reflects the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour; it is a right-to-work state with minimal worker protections. And in nearly half of its counties, there are more unemployed people than jobs.” Espy himself is a moderate who, and he is treading a fine line, seeking to mobilize his African-American base while also appealing to at least some “moderate” white rural voters, whose support he will need if he is going to eke out a victory.
As Julian Zelizer notes, the results will have broader implications for national politics in the lead-up to 2020:
Mississippi voters will offer the nation evidence as to whether “moderate white voters” still exist in the Deep South. These voters may signal if Democrats or moderate Republicans can be viable future candidates in red states, and in rural areas in otherwise purple states. . . if Espy is victorious, it would send reverberations throughout the political system. A victory for Espy would mean that there are certain lines that can’t be crossed and that voters are in play in the red parts of this country. Espy has the potential to demonstrate that Democrats can build coalitions with traditional base voters, such as African Americans, along with moderates who are sick and tired of the kind of values that Trump and Republicans leaders have openly embraced amidst some of the ugliest moments in our recent political history.
There is much ugliness out there. And meanness. And we can be sure that when Trump rallies his crowds for Hyde-Smith today, he will bring as much of it to the surface as he can. He is almost certainly ignorant of the historical ground onto which he will step, or of the racist resonance of his declarations of how Hyde-Smith is “an outstanding person who is strong on the Border, Crime, Military…,” and who was only joking when she pined for a “public hanging.”
On June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers, the field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP, was assassinated by Byron Beckwith, a member of the KKK and the CCA, in Jackson, Mississippi. On June 24 of 1964 James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, young civil rights workers participating in “Freedom Summer,” were murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi by members of the KKK.
And in the summer of 1964, outraged by this racism, Nina Simone wrote a song that came to be regarded as an anthem of the civil rights movement, “Mississippi God Damn.”
As Virginia Vigliar pointed out in a terrific piece on Simone’s “Mississippi God Damn” written in the wake of Trump’s 2016 election:
What we are witnessing is a repetition of history. Perhaps with different means and different weapons, but just the same. The United States has an entrenched history of racial discrimination and violence that is deeply rooted in its society and politics. It is no coincidence that a man like Donald Trump has managed to arrive where he has, with the support that he has. Even though major steps have been made, there is still a long way to go, and more than ever, there is need for Simone’s outrage from people of all races, and not only black people.
The eyes of a nation are on Mississippi.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. A Senior Editor at, and regular contributor to, Public Seminar. His new book, #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One , is published by Public Seminar Books/OR Books. You can purchase it here. Follow Jeff on Facebook.